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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Outwardly, the Sri Lankan Government is all bluster and bravado; but behind closed doors, the panic is setting in

Hail, the emperor! by Dharisha Bastians

There’s a new emperor  in town
The posters and hoardings to celebrate President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ascension to the Chair of the Commonwealth, a grouping mostly made up of territories of the former British Empire, must have been ready weeks in advance. By happy coincidence, the President was also celebrating his 68th birthday and his eighth year in office this week.

Crowned emperor of the new Commonwealth and with a war crimes inquiry in the offing next March, at home President Mahinda Rajapaksa is looking more invincible than ever

Locally, the Commonwealth summit, dogged by controversy over Sri Lanka’s human rights record and plagued by eleventh-hour boycotts and embarrassing no-shows, had been President Rajapaksa’s crowning moment. The posters all over the capital summed it up: Vanquisher of terrorism, now conquering the world.

A fawning local media has ensured the domestic success of the summit. With the ruling regime determined to play the showpiece meeting off as a resounding success, excessive negativity on the pages of newsprint and on air were deemed unwise.

Thus, CHOGM unfolded in Wonderland, an unwalled city of manicured islands and tree-lined streets.


CHOGM in Wonderland

In Wonderland, buses full of families of the disappeared travelling to the capital from the former conflict zone were not turned back by the military. State-sponsored demonstrations, ably abetted by the Bodu Bala Sena brigade of monks, did not shut down a legitimate human rights festival at the Opposition headquarters in the suburbs of the capital.

In the parallel CHOGM universe, British broadcast journalists from Channel 4, the controversial crew responsible for two documentaries alleging major crimes in the final phase of Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE, were thieving scum, defrauding a poor van driver. According to the Government’s CHOGM Spokesperson Anuradha Herath, the demonstration to prevent the Channel 4 crew travelling to the north was a shining illustration of Sri Lankan democracy at work.
In the final chapter of the Channel 4 saga in Colombo, six burly Immigration officials did not visit the crew at their hotel at dawn and inform them their freedom of movement was restricted between the hotel and the summit venue, prompting the crew to make an unscheduled exit from Sri Lanka. In fact, the Wonderland narrative would have it, the British journalists fled in fear of having to make their case during a live TV debate against a senior criminal lawyer and a Sri Lankan journalist.

Playing into the farce, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to the UK, Dr. Chris Nonis dismissed the Channel 4 documentaries as being no more significant than George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’ movie franchise. What the eloquent envoy failed to explain was why his Government was taking ‘Star Wars’ and its makers quite so seriously and allowing their victimisation in Colombo to become the dominant narrative of the Commonwealth summit.

Fortunately, one needs never over-think things in Wonderland, where repression is democracy and ignorance, to borrow from Orwell’s prophetic 1984, is truth.

But outside the CHOGM bubble, things were looking distinctly less rosy. The hoards of international press teams in Colombo to report on the summit more than compensated for the reporting deficiencies within the country. Every report leaving Sri Lankan shores to be aired globally across cable news networks and on the internet were crushingly critical of the summit hosts.

An unmitigated Public Relations disaster, some pundits have called the week-long summit, and the overwhelmingly negative international reportage had sections of the Government wondering how senior officials and advisors of the ruling administration had failed to foretell the extent of the impending crisis.

By the time President Rajapaksa addressed his second CHOGM press briefing, the strain was beginning to show. The pre-summit briefing on Thursday (14) had been one of good cheer, with a beaming President seated beside a somewhat stiff Commonwealth Secretary General. The next day’s briefing was mysteriously cancelled, prompting accusations by the British press, including Channel 4 that the Sri Lankan President was trying to avoid the foreign media. Government officials said the President was chairing an important CHOGM session and could not be drawn away during crucial discussions.

Showing strain
But it was a distinctly less-happy President who sat on the dais at Saturday’s press briefing at the BMICH. Aides scurrying back and forth between the President at the head table and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga to scribble notes that were then rushed back to the dais were a dead giveaway about the state of nerves in the Government camp.

Once dubbed the ‘Cabinet Reporter’ in President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Government because of his liaisons with local media personnel, President Rajapaksa has preferred his press encounters to be ‘managed’ since he was made the SLFP presidential nominee in 2005. His aides have ensured interviews with the President have been restricted to Sri Lanka’s State-controlled media or pre-arranged with the international press. A free-for-all of the CHOGM media briefing variety was unprecedented and it was making senior officials justifiably jittery.

Senior Commonwealth Secretariat officials were heard to comment among themselves at the CHOGM Media Centre that senior Government officials were increasingly reluctant to place President Rajapaksa before the press again and again. The officials remarked that it was odd how the Head of State himself did not appear unwilling to face the media despite the concerns of those around him. In the end, at all three briefings President Rajapaksa performed, for the most part flawlessly, unfazed by the toughest questions, even if his answers proved somewhat repetitive.

The David Cameron aspect of CHOGM proved harder for the regime to navigate. The British Prime Minister was under severe pressure at home to justify his attendance at the Colombo summit, given Sri Lanka’s deteriorating human rights situation and the erosion of democratic values in the country.

Digging in their heels

When Prime Minister Cameron touched down at the Bandaranaike International Airport on Thursday, therefore, with his own media entourage in tow, he had already made it clear he was not in Sri Lanka to win any friends.

Brushing past the VVIP guest book at the airport and making only a brief appearance at the CHOGM opening, Cameron stole the Government’s thunder when he made a flying visit to the Northern Province to “shine a light” on issues on the ground there four years after the war. Cameron’s show-stopper became the CHOGM story for the world’s media. His tour had created the perfect platform for northern Tamils to air their grievances about the Government’s policies as the world focused on Sri Lanka’s former battle zone.

A stormy bilateral meeting between the British PM and President Rajapaksa was to follow. Cameron raised the issue of an inquiry into alleged crimes of war as the Government executed the final push to defeat the LTTE in May 2009. President Rajapaksa, in a classic tit-for-tat, raked up the stalled Chilcott inquiry, a British public investigation into the country’s involvement in the Iraq War.
Both leaders had effectively dug in their heels. And in their respective countries, both President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Cameron had become heroes overnight.

At a fiery press briefing the next day (16), Cameron threw down the gauntlet and delivered the message it was clear he had come to Sri Lanka to give. Britain had just secured membership in the UN Human Rights Council, the main battleground of Sri Lanka’s greatest post-war international challenges. The Prime Minister assured the Government that if a credible domestic probe into alleged violations during the war’s final phase was not forthcoming, Sri Lanka would face a full-blown international war crimes inquiry in March 2014. His Government, Cameron said, would push for the investigation.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa retorted the same day that ‘people in glass houses should not throw stones’ – a clear reference to the British Prime Minister and possibly the Chilcott inquiry, although he refused to elaborate. The State-controlled press and other local media have echoed the sentiment, believing the Prime Minister’s strong message to be imperialist in tone and needlessly insulting of his host.


Home truths

Outwardly, the Sri Lankan Government is all bluster and bravado. But behind closed doors, sources say, the panic is setting in. For all the victory the regime is playing CHOGM out to be, the summit had brought some nasty home truths to the fore.

After the Government boasted there would be more world leaders present at the meeting than there were in Perth in 2011, in fact CHOGM 2013 had seen the lowest turnout of Heads of Government at a Commonwealth summit in several decades. The Commonwealth Secretariat was particularly peeved by the last minute drop-outs since logistical arrangements had been put in place in vain.
When the roll call of Commonwealth leaders was taken on 15 November, only 27 heads of government took the stage at the Nelum Pokuna auditorium for the CHOGM opening ceremony. At last count, the Government was expecting at least 40 heads of government. That someone had pulled a coup was clear, even if the protagonist remains in doubt.

Conventional wisdom in Government ranks was that the snubs had been orchestrated by New Delhi, whose own Prime Minister staged a tacit boycott and whose influence with Mauritius, at least, is in little doubt. Other analysts point to another powerful Western nation, with no direct links to the Commonwealth but enough muscle to discourage overwhelming attendance at the Colombo CHOGM.
For Kamalesh Sharma, the Head of the Commonwealth and firm friend of Sri Lanka, the turnout was a stinging indictment against his role in ensuring the Colombo summit went ahead as scheduled. Most importantly perhaps, Cameron’s March ultimatum had brought a ruling administration caught up in the fantasy and promise of CHOGM crashing back to earth about the monumental challenges it faces four months after the summit closes.


Nothing new in ultimatum
For all its sound and fury, the Cameron ultimatum was not news to the Sri Lankan Government – or at least the more initiated sections of it. Colombo has had March 2014 and the very real threat of an international war crimes inquiry hanging over its head since March 2013.

The writing was on the wall more clearly when UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay issued her report to the Council in September this year, pledging to call for an international probe if Sri Lanka did not address accountability issues about the final phase of its war against the LTTE by March 2014.

Pillay’s March 2014 deadline was in the offing since at least June this year, according to diplomatic sources. Support for the setting up of that inquiry is already being sought among the membership of the UNHRC, and the tabulation of the stumbling block nations – like Australia – has already begun.
The British Prime Minister was essentially riding on the coat-tails of these initiatives. But Cameron’s decision to issue the deadline in unmistakable terms has allowed his Government ownership of the international campaign aimed at holding Colombo to account.

The international community, led by the Western lobby the Sri Lankan Government has grown increasingly mistrustful of, is making it loud and clear that four years of military inquiries that have largely absolved Government troops of blame and foot-dragging on key investigations into alleged executions during the war will not meet the international benchmarks of a ‘credible’ investigation.
After strutting upon the global stage for an all-too-brief moment, President Rajapaksa’s administration must now face a dismal reality. Its international fortunes look bleak and it will take diplomacy of high calibre or genuine progress to dial down the pressure. The proposition made by South African President Jacob Zuma, for his country’s assistance to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for Sri Lanka, is being seriously contemplated as one way out of the UNHRC quagmire.
The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was loosely based on the South African TRC model to deal with its Apartheid era atrocities. But a proper TRC would bring victims and perpetrators together to deliver restorative rather than punitive justice and has long been prescribed as a panacea for the complex post-war issues facing Sri Lanka.
The other contemplation is more pedestrian and less focused on post-conflict healing. Government and Opposition circles are buzzing with speculation about a presidential poll as early as March next year. If international calculations were to be weighed in, the month of March is not being bandied about randomly.

A question has already been referred to the Supreme Court for interpretation about how soon the President can seek election for a third term, since the 18th Amendment that removed presidential term limits does not explicitly stipulate how early another term can be sought. The 1978 Constitution provides that a President may seek a second term in office after he completes the fourth year of his first term. Presidential polls were last held in January 2010, but the President assumed his second term in office only later that year – in November. The Supreme Court interpretation, once delivered, will be key to understanding the regime’s thinking on the likely date of the next presidential poll.
From the perspective of the ruling administration, there is no reason to postpone holding an election to reinforce President Rajapaksa’s mandate.

The summit was a success and the Rajapaksa regime can bask in its glory. Despite negative forecasts, the economy is holding firm. A pro-people Budget is likely to be unveiled today. Cynical city-dwellers are pacified by the pretty capital the accelerated beautification program for CHOGM has left behind. What’s more, even the more cosmopolitan sections of Sri Lankan society are bristling with indignation over David Cameron’s high-handedness during the summit.

Brow-beaten and tamed over the years, sections of the media danced admirably to the Piper’s tune during CHOGM. Any swing towards a war crimes inquiry in March 2014 at the UNHRC in Geneva will, with the assistance of the pliant media, strengthen the President’s position back home. The incumbent President can go into the polls battle crowned emperor of the Commonwealth and vanquisher of terrorism, pledging to save the motherland and her heroic troops from new international enemies.

He will be effectively, invincible.

Domestically therefore, his domain is peaceful. And as far as President Rajapaksa is concerned, the domestic is the only real calculation he ever makes.




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